Author of Making Sense in Sign, Jenny Froude writes here about the importance of sign language for deaf children and includes her own experience with her profoundly deaf son Tom, who her book is based on.
This week, nearly 3 decades after he started there, I was back in the Unit (albeit rebuilt and changed beyond recognition) where our youngest son attended nursery school with his deaf peers. Same site, same Teacher of the Deaf and still the same need: Sign Language!
I was there on an Open Day, to see if the small local charity I represent can assist with some funding for basic, baby signing for new parents. Kate Rowley from the Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre gave a presentation on Language Development and Bilingualism. As a deaf daughter of deaf parents, growing up with spoken English and BSL, with both a deaf and hearing child herself and an academic background, she explained the myths and facts about sign language and how language develops.
To some of us there she was reiterating what we had already learned from years of experience but younger parents needed the confidence she could give them. Deaf children are developing English as they learn to sign and by reading with them, using fingerspelling (activated from the same part of the brain) and encouraging them to use correct mouth patterns when signing, even voicelessly, understanding is aided. In an ideal world a deaf child within a hearing family should see them automatically signing amongst themselves, not reserving it for when language is directed specifically at him/her, otherwise they can miss out on the wealth of information hearing children pick up incidentally. (Despite my being acutely aware of this it was not, and still is not, always easy to incorporate in busy family life, especially on social occasions when trying to be hostess/guest/wife/mother and now grandmother! So a minus point for me there then!)
If sign language is reserved solely for the deaf youngster in a hearing environment, he or she can feel it is a less valued communication method, explained Kate, but I hope our son’s slight hiccup in writing an explanation at a young age under his name “proudly found deaf” (instead of “profoundly deaf”) was a significant slip acknowledging his own worth!
Kate concluded by stressing “anything is possible WITH good language skills. Deaf people CAN learn both English and BSL”. I have only to read newly-married Tom’s emails to appreciate the truth of that. He uses sophisticated words, for which I have no idea of the signs, in the correct context and, as I wrote in my book, when he was starting secondary school “to see you grow up, profoundly deaf, with an abundance of confidence, good humour and concern for others, to see and hear you use language not only for basic needs but to negotiate, to soothe, to tease, to cajole, to question, to predict is a bonus we never dared dream of...” Each thank you card after his wedding was personally written by hand and far, far more than a mere bread-and-butter version!
Interestingly both he and his deaf bride elected to make their vows using sign and voice, which proves they embrace both cultures, and to all those people who confuse speech with language and look at me in disbelief when I say Tom’s language is amazing (although his speech is not clear) I would attribute it to the excellent advice we had from a peripatetic teacher who suggested starting to sign at one year. I hope today’s vulnerable new parents will find in signing the same joy and delight I did. And, even better, with the vogue for hearing babies to learn signs to “jump start” their language I think any remaining “stigma” (sad though that word makes me feel) some might see in what I consider the lovely method of communication that is a lifeline for some deaf children, could be removed now it is in the mainstream. And, hopefully, that new generation will grow up being fascinated rather than fazed by watching sign language being used, whether by deaf people or interpreters. That has to be a plus!
The biggest stumbling block in the current economic climate would seem to be the prohibitive cost of sign language classes and the lack of specialist social workers with deaf children. The system is letting them down.
To prevent the angst that is prevalent among some in the older deaf community who feel they were let down years ago by a lack of communication in their hearing families, today’s deaf youngsters (90% of whom are from hearing families) deserve the best we can give them in the way of early communication suited to their needs and hopefully Kate Rowley’s research and presentation (and my book) have suggested the way to go.
For further information about the Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre please see their website.
For further information about Jenny’s book please see our website.